We're rolling with two favorites that have good matchups and two enormous underdogs in good spots on Thursday's slate. 

By Max Meyer
February 07, 2019

Three Man Weave and I are back with our four favorite bets from Thursday's college basketball slate.

Western Kentucky at Rice

3MW Pick: Western Kentucky -4.5

Most shrewd gamblers would balk at seeing Western Kentucky laying only 4.5 points to Rice.

How can a surefire C-USA title contender with boatloads of talent be favored by only four and a half against last year’s conference punching bag? Surely, the oddsmakers must know something...

Don’t let what appears to be a fishy line scare you away—overanalyzing the oddsmakers’ rationale behind a certain line can often be a red herring for handicappers.

Let’s start with the Xs & Os. Rice’s offense is predicated on generating points via two efficient scoring avenues—threes and free throws. It makes perfect sense when you consider that the Owls’ head coach Scott Pera actually coached NBA superstar James Harden in high school, who’s in the process of revolutionizing the guard position with his ‘free-throw-and-threes’ scoring mentality. Over the first 10 games of conference play, 60% of Rice’s points have come from the charity stripe or behind the arc, the highest percentage of any team in the league.

This sets up nicely for the Hilltoppers, who have been allergic to fouling under the direction of head coach Rick Stansbury. The fact that WKU currently holds the lowest defensive free-throw rate in the C-USA is no fluke—this is a staple of Stansbury’s coaching DNA and has been long before he arrived in Bowling Green back in 2016. If you hone in on his last 10 years of head coaching experience, which includes the last six seasons at Mississippi State, Stansbury’s teams have finished in the top-30 nationally in defensive free-throw rate nine times.

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The point here is simple—don’t expect Rice to steal points at the charity stripe tonight, which means the Owls will be highly leveraged on knocking down open shots from the perimeter. This can be a soft spot in Stanburys’ patented 1-3-1 zone, so the Hilltoppers will need to be on high-alert on where the Owls’ sharpshooters are lurking around the arc.

In addition to the schematic matchup edge I see for the Tops this evening, particularly on defense, this wager also holds up in the ‘handicapping court of law’, so to speak. Here’s one way to look at the value of this wager—had this game been played just a month ago, there’s no chance the line would’ve opened WKU -4.5. On Jan. 3, Rice was 309th in kenpom.com’s overall rankings, coming off two straight beatdowns at home at the hands of Nebraska Omaha and North Texas. Since then, the Owls have soared up the kenpom charts to 225th overall, an 84-spot climb in just over a month. A spike of this magnitude this late in the year for a team most prognosticators has pencilled in to the gutter of the C-USA before the year began is quite rare.

It’d be unfair to say Rice is completely devoid of talent—stud freshman Chris Mullins was a three-star recruit coming out of high-school and former TCU transfer Josh Parrish was a highly touted prospect as well, both of whom pair nicely with veteran point guard Ako Adams and Pacific grad transfer Jack Williams. But those names don’t hold a candle to the blue-chip talent crop that Rick Stansbury has hauled in, headlined by McDonald’s All-American big man Charles Bassey. Thursday is a must-win for the Tops, who are a game and a half back of first-place Old Dominion in the C-USA standings with just four left to play—with the stakes so high, I have no doubts about the level of focus WKU should bring to Houston tonight.

Little Rock at Troy

3MW Pick: Troy -5.5

Headline: Two teams of Trojans enter off a combined eight straight conference losses to do battle in an effort to stay out of the Sun Belt basement.

Troy is a “Lopsided Lovely,” a moniker we at 3MW assign to teams that have wildly different success on either of the floor. Per kenpom, the Trojans are ranked 97th in offense (second in the Sun Belt) and 311th in defense (dead last in the Sun Belt), a variance that ranks 10th in the country. Troy’s last two outings are perfect examples of what’s been plaguing the Trojans all year—against South Alabama, Troy poured in 1.15 PPP but gave up 1.25 PPP, and against Louisiana, Troy notched 1.12 PPP but allowed 1.19 PPP.

We’ll start with the good. Troy’s offense has been so good this season because it has one of the true stars of the Sun Belt suiting up for it on a nightly basis. Jordon Varnado, a 6’6” senior forward, comes into tonight averaging 27.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, and 2.4 APG in conference play, leading the Sun Belt in scoring and ranking sixth in rebounding overall. Everything the Trojans do offensively runs through Varnado, who is adept at directing traffic from the mid-to-low post and comfortable stepping out and knocking down a triple. His versatility makes him a nightmare to guard and he torched Little Rock in a Jan. 10 loss to the tune of 26 points and 11 rebounds.

To defeat the the other Trojans on Thursday, Varnado will need his supporting cast to do better than shoot 2 for 14 from outside the arc. While Varnado is great in every since of the word, Troy’s winning still hinges on the backcourt hitting shots and guys like Alex Hicks dominating the glass. Little Rock is going to pack the paint on defense and allow Troy open looks from the outside, and the latter the Trojans need to capitalize. Hicks and Varnado should have no issue winning the glass battle on this end with Little Rock’s propensity to give up second chance opportunities. The one concern is turnovers—in the first meeting between these two schools, Troy coughed up the rock 23 times and Little Rock leads the conference in turnover rate. I’d lean on the side of calling that effort an anomaly given eight of those TOs came from Varnado, who is usually very secure with the basketball and owns a low TO rate for his sky-high usage.

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Now the bad. Troy has been getting slaughtered on the defensive end this season primarily by way of the three-point line. Part of this is style—Phil Cunningham teams never have high turnover rates and tend not to pressure ball handlers—and part of this is just bad luck. Prior to this season, Cunningham’s Trojan squads have allowed an average 3P% of 34% over five years. This year, Troy opponents are shooting a ridiculous 39.2%, which makes the Trojans the 8th worst 3P% defense in the country. In conference play, it only gets worse—opposing units are shooting 45.3% (!!!) from the Land of Plenty, far and away the highest rate in the league and a number that screams “regression to the mean is coming!!!” Little Rock is a good outside shooting team (and it hit 10 of 23 against Troy back in January), but it isn’t Darrell Walker’s primary method of scoring—UALR ranks just 11th in the conference in 3PA rate. Instead, Walker wants his group to attack in transition and attack the basket in hopes of drawing contact and getting to the foul line. Troy does two things well on defense—1) protect the paint (Hicks and Varnado are solid shot swatters) and 2) take away transition opportunities. Little Rock controlled the tempo in the first outing, but Troy should own the pace in this one within the friendly confines of Trojan Arena.

Both of these squads are in desperate need of a win following losing streaks, so I’ll take the home team that was projected to be a fringe Sun Belt contender in the preseason versus an overachieving, young team on the road in this one.

UPDATE: Varnado is not playing tonight for Troy, hence the line going down. While Troy -5.5 is still an official pick here, be careful about betting on Troy if you're reading this now.

Washington State at Arizona State

Meyer's Pick: Washington State +15.5

This is a hold-your-nose pick: Washington State absolutely stinks. The Cougars have covered one game in Pac-12 play (beating an even more wretched Cal 82–59 at home). Of their eight Pac-12 losses, seven have come by double digits, with the one exception being a nine-point loss to USC in Pullman.

So why are we putting our hard-earned money on Washington State? One of my favorite phrases in the English language: sandwich game. Those two words by themselves are excellent already. But putting them together is a prime spot to profit.

For those who don’t know what a sandwich game is, it’s the game played in between an emotional win or tough loss the game before and a huge game ahead. And this is probably the best one we’ll get in the Pac-12 this season.

Arizona State is coming off a 95–88 overtime win over in-state rival Arizona last Thursday—its first win over the Wildcats in seven tries under Bobby Hurley. On Saturday the Sun Devils host Washington, which is undefeated in Pac-12 play and the only team above ASU in the conference standings (though ASU is tied with Oregon State for second place). Those are two enormous games, it’s going to be a tough ask for the Sun Devils to be completely motivated against Washington State.

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Believe it or not, the Cougars have a big edge shooting the basketball here. Washington State has a 54.1 eFG% on the season (52nd in the nation, per kenpom), while Arizona State sits at 50.4 (196th). Wazzu is also one of the rare Pac-12 teams that shoots from beyond the arc relatively often. There are just four Pac-12 teams that are inside the top 200 in the country in three-point rate: Utah is 29th, Wazzu is 36th, Oregon is 145th and Washington is 162nd. ASU is 274th, and its second-best perimeter shooter, freshman Taeshon Cherry (his 37.0% mark from three only trails Rob Edwards’s 42.1, and the next-best shooter who takes threes relatively often is Remy Martin at 33.7%), is out due to post-concussion symptoms.

The Cougars have five players that attempt over three three-pointers per game and shoot 34.9% or better from beyond the arc. Four of them are over 36%. While Robert Franks has the worst mark of the five, he’s the top scorer in the Pac-12 (21.4 points per game) and can certainly take over a game by himself offensively.

Now for the bad news: Washington State is horrendous on defense (321st in adjusted defensive efficiency) and doesn’t rebound well at all either, which is a big issue against Arizona State’s tremendous length. But hey, that’s why we’re getting 15.5 points, right?

I don’t blame you if you’re nervous betting on a very bad team. But the sandwich spot is just too enticing for me to pass up. ASU played in another sandwich game at home this season, facing Princeton in Tempe a week after upsetting top-ranked Kansas and a few days before starting Pac-12 play at home against Utah. The Sun Devils were 14.5-point favorites at home, yet lost outright, 67–66.

A spread as big as 16.5 is already a hefty one going against a team that jacks up threes often, because an underdog catching fire from the outside makes the already hard feat of covering a big spread even tougher. This is an ASU team that has surrendered a 44.3% three-point rate to opponents (325th in Division I), so Wazzu will certainly get its chances from the outside. I think the Sun Devils will have trouble getting up for this game, and Washington State’s shooting prowess could end up making this one far more interesting than the enormous spread suggests.

Pacific at St. Mary's

Meyer's Pick: Pacific +15

Anyone up for another sandwich?

St. Mary’s snapped a two-game losing streak by defeating USF, who was in second place in the WCC at the time, 86-80 in Moraga. The Gaels’ next game is on the road at Gonzaga, a showdown that has been a monumental conference affair over the years. Yet on Thursday, they play Pacific at home, a team that is 3-6 in conference play and is only ahead of Portland (0-9) in the WCC standings.

Admittedly, the Gaels have played significantly better at home than on the road in conference play. But besides this being a juicy sandwich game, Pacific isn’t the easiest matchup here for the Gaels.

Unlike our other sandwich team, Washington State, Pacific does not rely on much three-point shooting (310th in three-point rate per kenpom). The Tigers rely heavily on driving to the rim and generating points inside or from the FT line. On the other side, Randy Bennett’s focal point on defense is eliminating the outside shot (opponents have the ninth-lowest three-point rate in all of CBB).

Meanwhile, opponents have taken 39.9% of their shots at the rim against the Gaels (tied for 49th-highest in CBB) per hoop-math.com, which is exactly what Pacific will want to do here. Additionally, 24.6% of the Tigers’ points this season have come from the FT line (third-highest percentage in CBB), because they are good at drawing whistles (17th in FT rate) and making their attempts from the charity stripe (75.6%, 25th).

The Gaels don’t have a lot of depth (26.8% of their minutes come from the bench, ranking 273rd in CBB), so if even one of their key players gets into foul trouble, like Jordan Hunter (5.4 fouls committed per 40 minutes) or Malik Fitts (3.5 FC/40), that could cause St. Mary’s some major issues in relying on other people to score besides human heat check Jordan Ford.

I also like the fact that both of these teams play at a slower pace (Pacific is 280th in adjusted tempo, St. Mary’s is 331st). Don't expect Mary's to get a lot of second chances on its possessions either, as Pacific is third in the country in opponent offensive rebound percentage (22.4, per kenpom). A lower-possession game with fewer shots attempted, like this one projects to be, makes it much tougher to cover a spread as high as this one. I’ll take my chances here on the double-digit underdog in a favorable spot.

NOTE: I’ll likely be on Arizona (sitting at PK/-1 as of 1:20 p.m. EST) vs. Washington, just want it confirmed first that Noah Dickerson won’t play (he’s listed as doubtful). Yes, there are a couple things that concern me about Arizona: most notably the possible distraction of another controversy regarding an assistant and the difficulty that Sean Miller’s teams have going up against zone defenses. But McKale is still the most daunting road environment in the Pac-12 and this is a good buy low spot for the Wildcats in a matchup that should have the team amped. Brandon Williams being out for Arizona means that Miller is going to roll with bigger lineups (expect to see a good amount of two of Chase Jeter, Ryan Luther and Ira Lee on the floor together compared to the lineups featuring two small guards in Justin Coleman and Williams), which would give the Wildcats a big advantage inside if Dickerson is out.

Overall Record: 38-35-1

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